Toon Zone Interviews Darrell Van Citters on Making of "Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol"
If you were to run an informal sidewalk survey, the overwhelming majority of the public would probably say either A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. While those specials are deservedly beloved by many, the real pioneer of the animated television Christmas special was Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted, one-man wrecking crew, who starred in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol three years before Charlie Brown and company graced TV screens. A production of the UPA animation studio, the surprisingly faithful adaptation featured a guest spot by UPA’s other top star Gerald McBoing Boing as Tiny Tim, a musical soundtrack by Broadway musical veterans Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, and of course the legendary Jim Backus as the voice of Mr. Magoo.
Sadly, it seems that the show’s profile in the popular consciousness has fallen along with Magoo’s, despite the high quality of the special and its place in television history. A combination of curiousity and personal affection for the special led animator Darrell Van Citters on a two-year odyssey, culminating in his new book Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special. A veteran of both the Walt Disney and Warner Brothers animation studios, Van Citters and his business partner Ashley Postlewaite founded Renegade Animation in 1992.
Christmas has come a little early this year, with the lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched book hitting store shelves now. Toon Zone News was able to spend some time over the phone with Van Citters about Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol and the making of the making of.
TOON ZONE NEWS: When did you decide you wanted to write the book?
DARRELL VAN CITTERS: I kind of slid into that (laughs). At first, I was just expressing interest that I wanted to find out some of the back-story, because I kept waiting for a book to come out. One never came out, so I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just ask some people some questions and take care of my own curiosity,” and gradually, one thing led to another and I got to the point where I met (producer) Lee Orgel’s widow Lea, and she started telling me stories, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “You know, there’s a story here.” Though I had never written a book before, I think that this story needs to be told, so I went ahead and did it. At the same time I was doing research on publishers and, in the back of my mind, self-publishing, because I thought, “You know, there may be a chance that nobody else thinks this is compelling, so what happens if I do it?” So I was doing all the research on all of those things all at the same time.
TZN: And running your own animation studio.
VAN CITTERS: Yeah, exactly. (laughing)
TZN: How did you find the time and energy to do the work for the book, and can I have whatever it was that you used to do it?
VAN CITTERS: (laughs) Well, my day job wasn’t terribly taxing at the time, so I was able to do some research during those hours. The fact that I do have a crew gave me a little bit more flexibility than if I was running the company completely on my own. My producer/partner Ashley (Postlewaite) was great in helping facilitating that so I would have some of that time. And then I would spend a lot of time writing in my head as I would do morning walks, or late at night after the kids were in bed, I’d spend time pounding it all out. I think it helps when you have a passion for the material. That helped drive things, so I could wake up and still find some momentum somewhere.
TZN: I read that it took you about 2 years to finish the book?
VAN CITTERS: From the day…from the very first interview to the day I sent it off to the printer, it was exactly 2 years. It was just coincidental that it worked out that way.
TZN: So it means you started in late 2006, early 2007?
VAN CITTERS: Yeah, I think it was March 2007 was the first interview.
TZN: One thing that I always thought was odd about the special was the Broadway framing sequence. Since I grew up with those Magoo classics adaptations, I always thought it was weird. “Why are they doing this Broadway thing? I know Magoo does adaptations of the classics.” Where did that come from?
VAN CITTERS: Those classic adaptaions came afterwards. The reason they did it was because at that time, everybody only knew Mr. Magoo as the classic Mr. Magoo character. This is covered in the book, but their concern was, “Will people understand that he’s playing a role? Will it be too confusing for them?” So, they decided to use some kind of framing device. Originally, Lee Orgel’s idea was just to do it as a community theater kind of thing, and at some point in the process, the idea got marched to making him a Broadway star as a framing device, so people who were seeing it could understand that he was going to be playing the role. Nowadays, you see the Flintstones doing A Christmas Carol and things like that, so people don’t have that same issue any more, but at the time, that was their concern.
TZN: You were able to interview a lot of the people who were involved, and I’m sure you ran into the problem of oral history, where people don’t necessarily remember things the same way.
VAN CITTERS: Yes, exactly.
TZN: Was there anything in particular where everybody did have such a sharp, clear memory of it that you basically got the same story for all of those?
VAN CITTERS: I don’t remember anything specifically. The biggest issue I had with people mis-remembering was what came first or when. Most of them swore to me that Gay Purr-ee came after Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and actually the facts don’t support that (laughs). Some people didn’t remember working on it at all. Some people remembered it happened in 1961, some people remembered that it went so fast, some people didn’t remember working with other people on the project, so I can’t say there was one area where they all agreed. Even some people thought it was just another project, others knew it was something special at the time, (laughs) so it was all over the map. Except for the dates, it wasn’t like anybody misremembered anything too erratically, but still, somebody would say, “Well, he must have done this,” and I’d go back and look and it’s not listed in the credits and he’s not listed in any of the records, so I don’t think he did work on it. It was a lot of work to put all those pieces together.
TZN: How did you approach it when people had just completely divergent memories and there wasn’t any clear record about what happened?
VAN CITTERS: What I would do is I’d put all of the stories together and I’d say, “OK, here’s what they all say,” and try and triangulate from that. And then when I had artwork – because artwork actually told me a lot of stuff – or documents, then I could start to refine that triangulation until I got to a point where I could say, “This seems to be the truth that relates most strongly to everybody’s memory.” Sometimes, the artwork or the documents would clearly delineate what had happened far better than anybody’s memories. That being said, there’s probably still some areas that we don’t even know that they could be right or wrong simply because there are no records, or the records are so far buried in a Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse that nobody knwos how to find them, but the book is based on everything that I could come across, and that was several archives and articles and documents and artwork.
TZN: Where did you find all the source material for the book?
VAN CITTERS: Well, it turned out that there were a couple of people’s personal records that ended up at the American Heritage Center in Wyoming, and so I was able to get a lot of information and photographs that way. Some of it was from family members who kept the stuff and didn’t really even know what they had. Some people had a few pieces of artwork that had been boxed away for years, and hadn’t even thought about Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol in 40 or 45 years. So it was a wide variety of places, and I would come across other collectors, either through eBay or through galleries or something like that, who shared a common interest in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. They were able to put together a lot of the artwork and, again, triangulate based on all of those bits of information.
TZN: In your view, what would you say was the biggest “Oh, wow!” or the coolest thing that you found while you were doing your research?
VAN CITTERS: Probably most of the “Oh, wow” stuff came from talking with Lee Orgel’s widow, Lea. Also one day, just before Christmas 2007, they found a whole box full of documents and materials relating to A Christmas Carol that (laughs) was able to really break things wide open on who the potential sponsors were. The first time I sat and chatted with Lea, she showed me a rejection notice from Richard Rodgers on his own stationery, and I was like, “You’re kidding! They didn’t just, like, make this thing? They actually approached Richard Rodgers?” They also approached Frank Loesser and Wright & Forrest, and Jule Styne and Bob Merrill got the gig finally. You started getting those kind of stories and you went, “Whoa, are you kidding me?” And then Walt Disney called them up to congratulate them when the show aired. That’s in the introduction. Things like that, it was one revelation after another.
I think there was a little bit more there than just a special schlock out to fill screen time. Most people have the idea that this came later, too, that Charlie Brown Christmas was the first one, when that’s actually the third Christmas special. So the more I dug, the more I thought, “I really do think that people need to hear about this, and they can decide for themselves whehter it’s a landmark.” but the fact is that it’s the first full-length Christmas animated special. The one before it, I think, was only 15 minutes long. But it’s the first holiday special that really started that whole genre of making prime-time TV specials.
TZN: Watching it again, I was struck at how faithful it was to the Dickens source material, and how much of the dialogue is just lifted straight from the book. Did they get any fight from the network about that?
VAN CITTERS: I didn’t find anything where they fought the network on that, no. I think the hardest part was condensing it to fit within an hour timeframe, or actually within 52 minutes. There are much longer versions, and then you add music into there, (laughs) that makes it potentially even longer. One point I do make in the book is that they actually used the songs to their advantage to condense pages of material into one choice moment. But the biggest change, and most Dickens fans are extremely well-aware of it, is the reordering of the ghosts, and I could find nothing that would explain why they did it.
VAN CITTERS: Yeah. I don’t have a problem with it because I think it still works. We see a little bit more of Scrooge’s past than we were otherwise, and by doing it the way they do it, we get a little more insight in to who he is now, and his past. I don’t find it a big bother, but I’m still extremely curious as to why that change was made.
TZN: But there’s nobody who can remember why they did that?
VAN CITTERS: Nobody can remember it. Nobody can point me to any documents. There may be documents somewhere. In fact, I’m pretty sure there probably are, but they just have to dig into someplace I couldn’t get into.
TZN: Classic Media holds the rights to Magoo now. Did you get a lot of help from them for the project? Or did they have a lot of help to give?
VAN CITTERS: I approached them early on, both for permission to do the book and for assistance. I was led to believe that the thinking at the time was the only way I would be allowed access to their archives on this project was if an attorney would sit with me in case I came across anything they felt I shouldn’t see, and nobody wanted to spend the money on an attorney to babysit me. So, I got no cooperation that way because they didn’t want to spend the money. I found out a lot of material without that, but it probably would have been even more effective if I had access to that material.
TZN: That’s a shame.
VAN CITTERS: It is a shame. And I think that (laughs) I think that the book benefits them more than it benefits me. It’s their property, you know.
TZN: I saw that you even threw a reunion/wrap party for the surviving crew.
VAN CITTERS: Yeah, you see a picture of it in the very back of the book. When I was doing my research, I found out that there really wasn’t a wrap party at the time. I don’t think it was really the custom as it is nowadays to do a big wrap party, so I thought, “Well, I think they should have a wrap party.” Also, I wanted to thank all these people for trusting me with their stories, to take me and tell me what they could remember about this, and it just happened to turn out that that year, December 18 fell on a Tuesday night. The original show date was on a Tuesday night on December 18, and the Smokehouse restaurant was the restaurant right next door to the old UPA studio, and I just thought, “You know, everything’s just kind of lining up here. It’ll be 45 years exactly to that day and date. Let’s have a party for these guys.” So we set one up there and I think they all appreciated being recognized.
TZN: You were still in the middle of writing the book?
VAN CITTERS: Yes, I had completed the first draft by that point, but I still had quite a ways to go yet to finesse it.
TZN: Did you have to cut anything from the book that you really wanted to include but just didn’t have room for?
VAN CITTERS: I did have to cut. The original first-draft of the book was about 16 chapters long, and the final book is 12 chapters. Those 4 chapters (laughs), everybody who’s not in animation who read them thought that the material was too “inside” and it was boring them to tears. Being in animation, of course, I find it immensely interesting. One of the key stories that I had in there was how Stephen Bosustow lost UPA to Henry Saperstein. I did all the research on the legal documents and I saw memos on the backroom machinations on the whole thing. To me, that’s just a fascinating story all by itself.
It didn’t quite fit into the narrative of how Christmas Carol was done, but my original viewpoint on this thing was that there were four people responsible in various ways for this special happening: Saperstein, Bosustow, Lee Orgel, and (director) Abe Levitow. I was just trying to tie together all four people’s careers, and how they met at this one point that allowed this special to happen. Eventually, I opted to just narrate the behind the scenes of how the special actually happened, with none of the back-room politics. I think most people found that that was the right idea, because it’s a much cleaner read.
TZN: Are you planning to do anything with that material? There was a book that came out recently about the UPA Studios, wasn’t there?
VAN CITTERS: A photo-essay book, but there hasn’t been a real solid one. I know that one is being worked on, and I proposed this particular section of the book as maybe a magazine article to someone, but no one was interested in taking it on. Maybe the upcoming UPA book will cover that, too, and it will all be irrelevant, but I still thought it was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look there.
TZN: You are an animator by training. How did that help you doing the research or shape the narrative you were trying to tell in the book?
VAN CITTERS: I think in some ways, it made it a lot easier to connect all these disparate parts because I did understand how all the pieces of art related to telling the story, and when a piece of art was significant instead of just being another piece of art. I think that helped a lot.
I think running a business also helped frame it as a commercial enterprise, you know? This was business, it wasn’t just done for fun or becuase someone wanted some artistic expression. I think all of those disciplines that I have to maintain running an artistic business all helped contribute to making it a more effective read, I guess.
TZN: Was there anything where you found yourself surprised at the differences between making cartoons now and making them back then?
VAN CITTERS: Well, not so much. I think I was impressed at how quickly they put together the soundtrack on this thing, both the songs and the actual recording sessions. (Laughs) I spent many years at Disney, and recording soundtracks on those was a very slow process, so it was kind of amazing just how quickly this happened. I think there’s a merit to moving that quickly, in that you don’t over-think things. In terms of the process, I think the only real surprise I had was how quickly the entire show was done, too. They got the green-light shortly after the first of the year, and that thing was on the air in December. In those days, you’d have a lot of lead time to get it to the lab, get prints made, and all that stuff, and you couldn’t really start production until the voices and the songs were recorded, so that puts a very small window there. Recording happened in June and the final stuff would have been delivered in November. That’s a very small timeframe.
TZN: Especially since it wasn’t the only thing they were working on, either.
VAN CITTERS: Exactly. I think it’s…(laughing) when you think that these guys were working on a feature at the same time, these guys were crazy! And yet, look what happened? And I do make a point in the book that all the emphasis really was on the feature, and this just kind of snuck up underneath them, and it’s the one that everybody remembers.
TZN: Did you learn anything about running your studio by doing the research on the book, or from writing the book?
VAN CITTERS: Actually, I did. It was fascinating in doing the research on Henry Saperstein, just (laughing) how ruthless he was as a businessman, and…not that I would say, “OK, here’s how to be ruthless,” because I don’t think that way, but it was fascinating to see how he would run a business. A lot of my business lessons have come from watching people do things that I don’t think are appropriate to morale or getting the best result, so I will oftentimes do the opposite of what they’re doing, so I found some lessons in there. Also, what I was impressed at was how tightly run that machine was over there. They could pull something like this off in such a short amount of time, which to me speaks of an efficient system, which I think any businessman would be pleased to have. In this business, you want to do art, but you also want to make sure that you’re not going to lose your shirt doing it, because if you do lose your shirt, you won’t be able to do any more art. I think those were lessons that I found fascinating.
TZN: How about the reverse question: was there something about writing a book that you found you could apply lessons that you learned from running the studio?
VAN CITTERS: Hmmm…that’s an interesting question (laughs). There are parallels to running a studio with writing a book in that you have to be extremely well-organized with your material and your resources and how you allocate those. As to any specific lesson, I can’t put my finger on one.
TZN: There seems to be this persistent rumor that is even propagated by the latest version of the DVD that June Foray was in this cartoon.
VAN CITTERS: (Laughs) Yes, she is NOT in that cartoon. I can tell by listening to the voices, but I thought, “You know what, nobody’s going to believe my opinion, so let me ask June and ask her point-blank.” So I did, and so that is one rumor that is debunked in the book.
TZN: My personal suspicion is that for that time frame, if you said, “Oh, June Foray was in that cartoon,” 9 times out of 10 you’d be right. Still, I was a little surprised to see that showing up in the DVD bonus materials.
VAN CITTERS: Yeah, which shows you how poorly researched it was (laughs). You’re right, at that point, chances are good June would be in a cartoon, but the other thing to look at is the productions that were going on at UPA at around that same time. When Lee Orgel came in, he picked up some of those people, and he also brought in other people on Gay Purr-ee. You have to look at who he was used to working with. If you didn’t even have June to ask and you wanted to do it that way, he didn’t work with June Foray. And a lot of the same people who worked on Gay Purr-ee went straight on to work on Christmas Carol, and of course he got a few other name-brands like Jack Cassidy. It’s a common thing with people in the entertainment business, or ANY business: you like to work with people that you know. You know what their skills are, and you can count on them, and I think Lee was no different in that.
TZN: What would you say was the biggest surprise you had in writing the book?
VAN CITTERS: One, that I wrote a book (laughs), because that wasn’t the intention at first. Another surprise was actually deciding to go through and publish it myself, and then to hold a copy in my hands. Those were the big surprises. I guess how much more I learned about that production and that time period in animation. I think one thing that’s been shortchanged in animation history is the TV era. I wouldn’t say that everything done in the TV era is worthy of veneration, but there were certainly some really strong artists working there at the time, and some of that artwork is worth re-exploring. And even hearing some of the stories on how some of the stuff came around, because a lot of that TV animation was a really big pop-cultural influence, so I think there’s some legitimacy in finding out some of those stories.
TZN: Do you remember when you first watched the TV special?
VAN CITTERS: I don’t believe I watched it in its first year, but I know I watched it in its second year on our little 12-inch black-and-white set. I remember it having a big impact on me at the time. Just the ghosts in it…Marley appearing on the knocker and then the fireplace. Those were creepy moments. It’s very cartoony, but I think it speaks to the taste with which the whole thing was handled that it didn’t come off as goony. I think a lot of it has to do with the score, too, because it helps cue the audience on what’s going on.
TZN: Do you have a favorite sequence from the movie?
VAN CITTERS: I can appreciate different parts for different reasons. I think the sentiments expressed in “Alone in the World” are great, universal themes. As a kid, and still as an adult, I find the “We’re Despicable” sequence to be extremely entertaining. I won’t argue that it doesn’t really belong in the film, but I find it immensely entertaining, and I think most people will remember that sequence above than any other in the film. Those would be two. And I like the lyrics in “Winter Was Warm.” I don’t think that sequence was amazing to watch, even though it’s beautifully done. But I do like the lyrics. I think…one thing I was impressed with the whole thing was how good the lyrics were for something that people just dismiss as children’s entertainment. It was never meant to be that, of course, but it’s a good song score on that film.
TZN: What’s next for you, for Renegade or for publishing? What are you working on now?
VAN CITTERS: At Renegade, we’re revitalizing the Funny Face characters, the Pillsbury drink mix characters, doing a series of shorts on that.
TZN: Is that for advertising, or is that for a show?
VAN CITTERS: Ultimately, it’s for a show. Right now, we have 25 1-minute interstitials that we’ve done to kind of let people break it into their systems gently, rather than having to commit to a full half-hour. And we’re working on some other projects for various studios around town. We can’t go into all of them right now.
As far as publishing goes, (laughing) my big thing right now is marketing and selling this book, because I did self-publish and I’d like to at least make my costs back. Some people have been asking me to do something on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is an easier sell for publishers, but then I also have to deal with Warner Brothers and the Seuss estate.(laughs) I only had one corporation to deal with on Magoo. I think two would be a handful, unless they were full-on cooperating. They oftentimes think, “Ooh, somebody’s going to do a book, there must be money in there,” and I can tell you from this point of view, there isn’t! (laughs) If they want an exorbitant licensing fee, it’s dead on arrival. I’d be interested in doing another book on animation, but I think I’d want to rest a little bit and see how well this one does.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Darrell Van Citters for taking the time to speak with us, and to Keith Gayhart of Artisans PR for setting the interview up. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special is on sale at bookstores now. More information about the book can be found at the book’s official website, along with sample pages, video clips, and more. You can also keep up with events relating to the book at its official Facebook page.